March 1, 2012 |

In Recovery

By Pamela Mills-Senn

Received a bad health score? Here’s how to turn it around?


One of the biggest concerns about receiving a bad health code score — other than rectifying the violation(s) as immediately as possible — is how this might affect patronage. Where the problems causing the infraction are negligible or the violations small in number, traffic probably won’t be unduly affected.

Major and/or numerous violations, however, are a different animal. In these cases, especially where the violations indicate “gross negligence” on the part of the restaurant, customers are likely to be far less forgiving, says Aaron Allen, a consultant with The Allen Group of Hospitality Companies, headquartered in Orlando.

Under these circumstances, keeping a poor score from becoming a doors-closing catastrophe depends what happened — did anyone get sick? — and how much visibility it gets, says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies for WD Partners, a Columbus, Ohio-based consulting and design firm. If the restaurant’s predicament hits the Internet and goes viral, this can cause tremendous damage, says Lombardi, and can also quickly blow things out of proportion relative to the actual problem.

The connected nature of today’s world means that restaurants have just minutes, not days, to act, says Michael Layne, president of Detroit-based Marx Layne & Co., a PR and digital media firm. Consequently, he advises taking proactive measures.

“Don’t wait for a crisis to happen; have a good crisis communication plan developed and posted so all employees know the chain of communication,” he says. “You need to establish protocol in terms of the spokesperson and how media calls are handled. But the most important thing a restaurant should do is build brand and customer equity long before the crisis strikes.”

If the problem has gone viral, own up to the issue publicly, says Lombardi. “I would also call back the health department and request a re-inspection ASAP,” he adds.

“Depending on the severity of the problem, it could take two or three months for them to come back, so ask for it faster and as soon as this happens, make the results known.”

However, keep in mind that knowledge of the poor score may not be as widespread as you fear; monitor what people are saying, advises Layne. “Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by expanding the circle of awareness.”

So how should you communicate to customers in order to minimize the fallout to your business?

“Never say ‘no comment,’ or just try to wait it out for the storm to pass,” says Allen, adding that this tactic only inflames the public’s ire. “It’s okay to ask for time to respond and it’s often advisable at the outset, but never try to duck the issue.”

Communications expert Diane DiResta, president of DiResta Communications Inc., a New York City-based consulting firm, suggests using positive language rather than repeating the negative language the media might be using. Don’t say, “We don’t believe our food is contaminated.” This reinforces the concept of “contaminated,” she explains. Say instead, “We’re very concerned,” or words to that effect.

Layne agrees.

“You don’t want to create a double-negative by talking about the violation in detail. Instead, talk about your commitment to the highest-quality standards and demonstrate this.”

Align body language and tone with your words, says DiResta. Some “don’ts” include averting eyes/not looking at customers while reassuring them, fidgeting, using a curt or dismissive tone and rapid speech. Avoid talking excessively; this often signals nervousness, lying or lack of preparation.

Use strong words (“I’m confident we’ll resolve this”), DiResta says, and be definite about the steps you’ve taken to correct the violations (“We’ve started an investigation,” or “we’re retraining staff,” etc).

Depending on the situation, restaurants may want to consider establishing a dedicated phone line with a recorded message providing updates, says Allen, adding that social media posts might also be in order.Once the problems are rectified, some restaurants might be tempted to use incentives to bring people back, but there may be a better approach, says Lombardi. He suggests painting, modernizing or refreshing the restaurant’s appearance (pay special attention to the bathrooms, he advises).

“This way, customers actually see something has changed,” he says. “And then you have the option of inviting everyone to come and see your new dining room, or your new remodel.”

Or you could sponsor a local sports team or deliver pizzas to a church, says Layne. If you do offer an incentive, don’t tie this to the violation but rather position the incentive as a reward for customer support. He recalls a restaurant client that experienced an E. coli outbreak in which a customer died. Needing to rebuild confidence, when the restaurant reopened they invited city dignitaries to a hosted, invitation-only lunch, which was well-attended since everyone wanted the restaurant to succeed. It worked.

Says Layne: “Business went on, and it can go on, even when something like this happens.”

Common Violations

The need to keep insects, rodents and other unwanted “guests” at bay is apparent, but there are other not-so-obvious violations that Dan Hartwig, president of General Health & Safety Services Corp, a Punta Gorda, Florida-based consulting firm, routinely sees during his inspections. These include:

Improper temperatures. Store food you want to cool, or cooked food you’re not serving immediately, under 40 or over 140 degrees (in between lies the “danger zone”). Built-in thermometers in freezers/coolers can become inaccurate. Place a dial thermometer near the door. Use this to regularly monitor/log temperature. Dishwasher temps must be at a minimum of 180 degrees. Monitor at least weekly. Buffet food can’t be in the danger zone longer than two hours. Test and log temperature regularly.

Surface/equipment cross-contamination. Regularly clean/sanitize surfaces. A weak spot? Restaurants forget to clean/sanitize table-mounted can openers. Do this daily.

Rust. This can facilitate bacteria growth. Periodically inspect table legs, cooler bottoms, etc. for rust and remove and recoat or replace the equipment if necessary.

Improper gloving. Wear when handling uncooked food or already-cooked food. Be mindful of cross-contamination and change as necessary. Also change when handling food and touching face or hair, etc.

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelancer specializing in writing on topics of interest to all manner of businesses. She is based in Long Beach, California.